I have long had a soft spot in my heart for a different Marx Bros. film as my favorite, but Duck Soup is probably the one most often considered the best. There’s no question that it is fantastic, it’s just not my favorite. In the same way that other films of theirs spoof certain genres and topics, Duck Soup takes aim at politics and the political films (propaganda?) of the day.
As with any and all Marx Bros. movies the plot is little more than a frame on which to hang jokes, one-liners, slapstick, and ridiculous situations. Here Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly (the “T” stands for “Edgar”) the man installed as leader of the fictional European country Freedonia. This is the condition imposed by the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (played by Margaret Dumont) as necessary for her to use her immense fortune to guarantee the government’s solvency. Zeppo is his aide, and Chico and Harpo appear as spies in the pay of the nefarious Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. Trentino is out to weaken Freedonia so that Sylvania can conquer and annex it. That’s really about it. It’s difficult to convey the plot in any more detail without just recounting jokes.
There are a few classic bits you might know from seeing clips or parodies or references in other places. Harpo and Groucho have a mirror scene which is much-referenced by others. Groucho has an excellent comic song and monologue during the ball celebrating his assumption of power, and the lemonade seller’s conflict with Chico and Harpo is also pretty well-known.
The whole thing is a well-crafted masterpiece of absurd silliness from start to finish. It is a lean, mean, comedy machine. Even the quick, almost throwaway asides sparkle and you might find new jokes when you watch it a second time because you laughed right through and over them the first time. Some of the jokes have been obscured by the nearly 90 years of distance, but pratfalls and mocking the rich and politically powerful will never grow stale.
Behind the scenes, things were changing in ways that would alter the Marx Bros. and their movies forever. Changing producers, studios, Zeppo’s retirement from acting, all combine to make this a bit of a swansong despite them carrying on as comic trio for another decade or so and through another handful of films. And maybe that’s why so many think of this as the best of their films. While I’d still say it’s A Night at the Opera despite the absence of Zeppo on the screen, this does perhaps represent the acme of their talents as a four-man team. Awfully hard to argue with that.